Suet: A Bird-Feeding Staple

Learn about the suet feeder's development in bird feeding and growth in seed and feeder businesses.

| December 2017

Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press, 2015), by Paul J Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson discusses the changing relationship between backyard birds and humans. The chapters demonstrate how humans have developed with bird-feeding inventions, and also how Americans have come to value nature. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Seed and Feeder Businesses in the Roaring Twenties.”

One staple on bird-feeding menus from earliest accounts has been suet. But the suet of yore may or may not be the suet of today. Bird-feeding folks have come to call almost any kind of fat “suet.” It is also the term generally used for any fatty mixture or pudding one makes or purchases for birds. But not so long ago it specifically meant the hard, white fat on the kidneys or from the backbone and rib area of sheep, cattle, and other animals. Lard was the word for rendered pork fat. Schmaltz referred to a softer kind of fat found on ducks, chickens, and geese.

Suet is a true bird treat, one full of saturated fats (known as SFAs in dietary circles)—something we humans are supposed to avoid or at least consume only in moderation. But high-metabolism birds benefit from such fats, especially in winter, because they are full of heat-producing calories.

Feeder bird species have no doubt been dining on animal fat for as long as both they and the fatty animals have been around. In the wild, people have seen a variety of small non-vulture-type birds feasting on all sorts of carrion, including deer and skunk. Birdwatchers have reported seeing deer carcasses (e.g., in the Adirondacks) visited by Black-capped Chickadees, Boreal Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. In Georgia, Dark-eyed Juncos have been seen eating bits of deer fat left on the ground at check stations where hunters weigh their deer.

From Elizabeth B. Davenport’s early bird-feeding records during the winter of 1895–96, we learn that she fed suet to the birds who visited her Vermont backyard. She observed that, “generally, those living largely upon the larvae of insects all take the suet.”

She offered simple fare, such as leftover items from the kitchen or barnyard: “I put split bones in which the marrow is accessible and other bones with some suet upon the apple tree boughs, and also nailed large pieces of suet upon perpendicular trunks.” Chickadees, nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers found them almost immediately.

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